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Decoupling genetics, lineages, and microenvironment in IDH-mutant gliomas by single-cell RNA-seq

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Science  31 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6332, eaai8478
DOI: 10.1126/science.aai8478

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Effects of the tumor microenvironment

Glioma brain tumors that carry mutant copies of the IDH gene can be subdivided into two major classes. However, the development of and differences between these two classes are not well characterized. Venteicher et al. coupled bulk sequencing and publicly available data with single-cell RNA sequencing data on glioma patient tissue samples. They identified a common lineage program that is shared between glioma subtypes. This suggests that the observed differences between the two glioma classes originate from lineage-specific genetic changes and the tumor microenvironment.

Science, this issue p. eaai8478

Structured Abstract


Tumor fitness, evolution, and resistance to therapy are governed by selection of malignant cells with specific genotypes, by expression programs related to cellular phenotypes, and by influences of the tumor microenvironment (TME). Although bulk tumor analysis can interrogate the genetic state of tumor cells with high precision, bulk expression profiles average the diverse cells within each tumor, thereby masking critical differences and providing limited insight into cancer cell programs and TME influences. Single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) can help to address those challenges but incurs financial and logistic considerations, including the time required to accrue large cohorts of fresh tumor specimen for single-cell analysis.


We reasoned that scRNA-seq of a limited number of representative tumors could be combined with bulk data from large cohorts to decipher differences between tumor subclasses. In this approach, bulk samples collected for large cohorts, such as from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), are first used to define the combined effects of differences in cancer cell genotypes, phenotypes, and the composition of the TME. Single-cell analysis of a limited set of representative tumors is then used to distinguish those effects. We applied this approach to understand the differences between two types of isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH)–mutant gliomas: astrocytoma (IDH-A) and oligodendroglioma (IDH-O). IDH-A and IDH-O are distinguished by co-occurring signature genetic events and by histopathology and are thought to recapitulate distinct glial lineages. By combining 9879 scRNA-seq profiles from 10 IDH-A tumors, 4347 scRNA-seq profiles from six IDH-O tumors, and 165 TCGA bulk RNA profiles, we could decipher differences between these two tumor types at single-cell resolution.


We find that differences in bulk expression profiles between IDH-A and IDH-O are primarily explained by the impact of signature genetic events and TME composition, but not by distinct expression programs of glial lineages in the malignant cells. We infer that both IDH-A and IDH-O share the same developmental hierarchy, consisting in each case of three subpopulations of malignant cells: nonproliferating cells differentiated along the astrocytic and oligodendrocytic lineages, and proliferative undifferentiated cells that resemble neural stem/progenitor cells. By analyzing tumors of different clinical grades, we observe that higher-grade tumors present enhanced proliferation, larger pools of undifferentiated glioma cells, and an increase in macrophage over microglia programs in the TME.


Our approach provides a general framework to decipher differences between classes of human tumors by decoupling cancer cell genotypes, phenotypes, and the composition of the TME. The shared glial lineages and developmental hierarchies observed in IDH-A and IDH-O suggest a common progenitor for all IDH-mutant gliomas, shedding light on a long-standing debate in gliomagenesis. In contrast to the similarity in glial lineages, IDH-A and IDH-O differ significantly in their TME, and in particular in the abundance of microglia/macrophage cells. Microglia and macrophages also differ between IDH-A tumors of different grades. Our study redefines the cellular composition of human IDH-mutant gliomas, with important implications for disease management.

Single-cell RNA-seq of IDH-mutant gliomas reveals tumor architecture.

(Top) Human samples were dissociated and analyzed by scRNA-seq. (Bottom) IDH-O and IDH-A differ in genetics and TME but are both primarily composed of three main types of malignant cells: cycling stem-like cells and noncycling astrocyte-like and oligodendrocyte-like cells. Tumor progression is associated with increased proliferation, decreased differentiation, and increase in macrophages over microglia in the TME.


Tumor subclasses differ according to the genotypes and phenotypes of malignant cells as well as the composition of the tumor microenvironment (TME). We dissected these influences in isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH)–mutant gliomas by combining 14,226 single-cell RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) profiles from 16 patient samples with bulk RNA-seq profiles from 165 patient samples. Differences in bulk profiles between IDH-mutant astrocytoma and oligodendroglioma can be primarily explained by distinct TME and signature genetic events, whereas both tumor types share similar developmental hierarchies and lineages of glial differentiation. As tumor grade increases, we find enhanced proliferation of malignant cells, larger pools of undifferentiated glioma cells, and an increase in macrophage over microglia expression programs in TME. Our work provides a unifying model for IDH-mutant gliomas and a general framework for dissecting the differences among human tumor subclasses.

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